Fund for wildlife habitat is money well spent

One of the few bright spots of the 2009 legislative session was the decision to set aside $70 million in the state construction budget for wildlife habitat, farmland preservation and recreation opportunities.

Even in difficult financial times, lawmakers recognize the need to preserve habitat and special parcels of property for future generations. The $70 million for the next two-year budget period will fund 95 projects across the state.

It’s not like lawmakers were choosing between these worthwhile projects and smaller class sizes for kids or health care for the poor. Funds for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program come out of the state’s construction budget, which is financed through the sale of bonds. These are not general fund dollars.

“In the current economic climate, $70 million for the WWRP is a success,” said Joanna Grist, executive director of the coalition. “The grant program helps many, many towns, cities and people in the state. We’ll see immediate and long-term benefits for wildlife, families and the local economy as a result of this decision.”

Those lobbying for the wildlife and recreation grants had solid arguments. First, many of the projects will create jobs. They are, in the words of those who dole out so-called stimulus dollars – “shovel ready.”

Secondly, some projects involve property acquisitions and conservation easements that will put dollars in the pockets of local landowners, also helping to stimulate the local economy. The trails and natural areas that will be built will surely please members of the financially strapped public who are looking for free or inexpensive recreation opportunities.

As Michael Collins, coalition board president and vice president of public affairs for REI, said during the height of the legislative session, “In hard economic times, we see a higher number of people staying close to home and taking their families to local parks, beaches, and other outdoor recreation destinations.” He said the 95 projects that are funded at the state level will “help families all over the state by allowing more of these opportunities.”

The wildlife and recreation coalition was created in 1989 when former governors Dan Evans, a Republican, and Mike Lowry, a Democrat, assembled an incredibly broad, 130-member coalition of business and labor leaders, environmentalists, sportsmen and soccer moms. They came together because people of all political stripes understand the need to create special places across the Washington landscape while that’s still possible.

The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition has been a tremendous success. In 1990 the Legislature made its first appropriation – $53 million to be spent over two years. Since then, two-year appropriations have ranged from $40 million to $100 million. Supporters were shooting for $100 million this session, but were pleased with the $70 million appropriation.

That funding level was a compromise between the Senate, which set aside $50 million, and the House, which allocated $80 million.

Since the beginning of the effort, lawmakers have appropriated $550 million in grants to buy wildlife habitat, increase public access to waterways, protect natural areas, invest in local and state parks and preserve farmland. That $550 million has been matched with $440 million in state and local funds for a grand investment that will now top $1 billion.

With the new infusion of funds, the coalition will have paid for more than 1,000 projects.

Investments in Thurston County alone have totaled an amazing $29 million and include such popular attractions as Rainier Vista Park in Lacey, the Woodard Bay Natural Resources Conservation Area, the regional athletic park off Marvin Road, Olympia Woodland Trail, Millersylvania State Park, Grass Lake Nature Park, Deschutes Falls Park, Chehalis Western Trail and the Bald Hills Natural Resources Conservation Area.

That’s a remarkable gift to the entire South Sound community.

Local projects funded with the $70 million include property acquisition at Wards Lake ($750,000) for Olympia’s only freshwater beach access and expansion of the Tenino City Park ($57,500).

Legislators deserve credit for leaving a lasting legacy for future generations to enjoy.